Horror in the Britcom
Only Fools and Fridays
A.J. Black’s series looking at horror in British comedy discovers the ‘not-so-hidden’ horrors in one of Britain’s most beloved sitcoms, Only Fools and Horses…
only fools and horses
While the spectre of horror might not come instantly to mind when considering the jocular working-class pathos of Only Fools and Horses, John Sullivan’s iconic sitcom debuted in the midst of the American slasher’s rise to dominance.
1978’s Halloween, from John Carpenter, popularised through Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode the theory of the ‘Final Girl’, as Michael Myers’ unstoppable, masked killer scythed his way through the youthful population of Haddonfield. Two years later, teenage campers at Crystal Lake in the American heartland were picked off in Friday the 13th (Sean Cunningham) by Mrs Voorhees and later, in the subsequent franchise, her son Jason Voorhees, victims themselves of the selfish whims of casually promiscuous teenagers. By 1981, the year Sullivan introduced the Trotter family to the British populous for the first time, both Halloween and Friday the 13th were about to debut sequels. A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984) was just around the corner. The traumatised, male victim turned monster had arrived in American horror, and the 1980s saw an increased boom in American cultural transfers to British shores.
This surely accounts for an episode like ‘Friday the 14th’, which aired on BBC One on November 24th, 1983, an episode which directly references not just the Friday the 13th franchise—now three films strong following the release of Friday the 13th Pt III (Steve Miner) –earlier that year—but the broader trend of the slasher movie generally. Sullivan uses the episode to place, as he often would, Del-Boy, Rodney and in this case Grandad (later Uncle Albert) in positions that would showcase them in out of their depth situations; indeed he would frequently across the run of the series play with cinematic tropes or spoof well-known movies as a means of doing this. ‘Miami Twice’, set in Florida, riffs on The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola 1972). Numerous episodes reference popular films and play on them, such as ‘Fatal Extraction’, ‘From Prussia With Love’ or ‘May the Force Be With You’. Outside of Friday the 13th and this particular episode, however, there is one other horror film which consistently is utilised as a comical reference point in the series: The Omen.
What becomes clear is that Only Fools and Horses contains a surprising underbelly of anxiety in regard to horror tropes, and what they might reflect about the key socio-political factors at the heart of one of Britain’s most beloved sitcoms.
In an era of streaming services asserting dominance over a legion of established television channels, it is easy to forget just how popular Only Fools and Horses was in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
‘Friday the 14th’ takes place in the third season, during the years in which Sullivan’s sitcom was finding its feet, before the death of co-star Lennard Pierce forces the Grandad of wheeler-dealing market trader Derek ‘Del-Boy’ Trotter and his feckless young brother Rodney to be written out in the fourth year, replaced by Buster Merryfield’s iconic Uncle Albert. The years beyond his introduction, as Only Fools and Horses dabbled increasingly—and rather unprecedentedly for a BBC sitcom—in longer-form, feature-length episodes (had it been made a decade earlier it would almost certainly have been given a lacklustre feature film adaptation), established the show as the most successful and adored British sitcom of all time, not to mention a staple for many years of Christmas Day viewing. The viewing figures for 1996’s (at the time) final episode ‘Time on Our Hands’ broke records then for a BBC comedy broadcast (1) at 24.35 million, a record that remains to this day, and have rarely been matched in the quarter of a century since.
In other words, Only Fools and Horses was a comedic juggernaut that, for many years, was an unstoppable force. Certainly by 1988, as the show evolved into a 50-minute, drama-length format for the last two standard series, it had outgrown its own comedic sub-genre. The aforementioned two-part ‘Miami Twice’ really is a blockbuster in sitcom terms; produced in the United States, shot on film, no laughter track, replete with a score, it was the apogee of the show’s even transatlantic reach. One Foot in the Algarve, mentioned in the previous piece in this series (2), would never have been produced by the BBC without it. Del-Boy, Rodney & Uncle Albert remain, to this day, on a par only with Basil Fawlty or Alan Partridge (3) as the most immediately culturally recognisable comedy characters in British sitcom history. So, by that logic, what was John Sullivan doing writing both a pastiche of Friday the 13th and indeed broader horror tropes of the traditional, classical ghost story? Only Fools and Horses, a story about a fast-talking, ill-educated, working-class wideboy trying to make his fortune, while carrying his educationally middle-class aspirational brother, surely has little connection to horror as a sub-genre?
‘Friday the 14th’ is interesting because it works to highlight the inherent venality of the Trotter family. While Del, Rodney & even their crafty Grandad, are at heart good people (and Only Fools would not shine away from outright sentimentality at points), they are crooked, opportunistic, and will happily run away from a situation if they feel the long arm of the law bearing down on them. In this case, what appears to be the offer of a nice country cottage, rent-free, in Cornwall that the trio can escape to comes with a caveat – Del has made a deal with his old friend Boycie, who owns the cottage, to illegally salmon poach in order to make money from and exploit the local area. This makes the episode, to some extent, a cautionary tale. The Trotters are threatened by a dangerous external force for their hubris, for emerging from the moral vacuum of the crime-ridden, urban London landscape in order to remove natural resources from Mother Nature. Del placing a tub of writhing maggots on the dinner table as Rodney eats a curry with rice foreshadows this juxtaposition, suggesting horror before they even leave the homestead.
Upon arriving in Cornwall, episode director Ray Butt accentuates the foreboding. Thunder, lightning and heavy rain accompany the Trotters’ classic three-wheel van (memorably sporting their company slogan ‘New York. Paris. Peckham’) travelling dark and lonely country roads to reach their destination. They could be heading for the foresty remoteness of Camp Crystal Lake, and indeed they encounter a version of Friday the 13th’s Crazy Ralph in the jovial police officer who nonetheless works to fill in key exposition and provide these out of their depth outsiders with a warning: a man known as the ‘Axe Murderer’ has escaped an institute for the criminally insane on the moors, so they should be extra vigilant while on their break. Rodney and Grandad, ever frightened and cautious, immediately encourage retreat but Del represents the bullish ignorance of the City boy – he has profit to make, so they press on. Financial reward comes before any warning of local legend, myth or dangerous, unknowable force.
In this sense, Sullivan plays very clearly with tropes audiences are by now familiar with. Don’t go into the woods. Don’t approach the crazy man. Don’t stay alone in the big, remote house etc… all played out in literature and cinema for many decades. Only Fools here is explicitly cashing in on the transatlantic popularity of the slasher, and particularly Friday the 13th, at this time. Butt places a figure in the bushes watching the Trotters arrive at the cottage, heavily breathing and groaning in the rain with a calloused, old hand; this could be Jason in his hockey mask or Michael Myers about to stalk innocent teens. A man appears at the rainy window of the cottage looking in, who only Rodney sees, before seemingly disappearing. An ominous figure knocks loudly at the door. The fact such a figure has escaped onto the moors evokes the Gothic horror of The Hound of the Baskervilles (Arthur Conan Doyle, 1902) or the work of Daphne du Maurier; an open, enigmatic space with a gloomy remoteness that could be hiding any number of spectres. In the case of Only Fools and Horses, it feels right that the menace is from exploitation horror as opposed to the classical literary sources of One Foot in the Grave (BBC, 1990-2000).
There is, after all, an opportunistic cheapness to Del-Boy’s world (in which those around him all orbit). As the series transforms him from unlicensed trader emerging from a ‘70s of working-class hardship and economic downturn (4), into a wannabe ‘yuppie’ (5) and product of aspirational, neoliberal Thatcherism, he becomes a tragic example of failed British meritocracy. Del-Boy only gains his fortune, in the end, through dumb luck – a centuries-old pocket watch that lands the Trotters millions of pounds. By ‘Time on Our Hands’, the Trotters have become as much extended family to the viewer as they are to each other, so their success reads as cathartic, but it is a cheat. Sullivan’s message across the run of Only Fools and Horses is that Del-Boy is destined to always be a victim of Thatcherism and a Britain feeding class warfare and City prosperity, and even when Rodney graduates art college and marries into the middle-class, his working-class family origins, and his tether to proxy guardian Del, frequently threaten the aspirational life he seeks to build for himself. We might love the Trotters but in the best tradition of comic British heroes, they are losers. At times, they are even victims.
While ‘Friday the 14th’ takes place a good while before many of these developments in the characters’ lives, by choosing to lampoon exploitative horror such as Friday the 13th, Sullivan makes the point that while the Trotters often are victims of their own innate naïveté, stupidity or ignorance, their cheap attempts to raise their status, make a quick buck and build an empire can quite literally place them under physical threat. The teens slaughtered by Jason in the Friday the 13th series might be examples of sexual liberation run amok, of a countercultural horniness at the end of the ‘50s that results in an abrogation of duty to protect the innocent, but ‘Friday the 14th’ instead suggests the Axe Murderer could visit upon the Trotters punishment for their own economic drive, and the temerity they have to try and move beyond their station. This being a comedy of course, ‘Friday the 14th’ doesn’t end with Del & co chased across the moors by a knife-wielding maniac, indeed the crazed killer—who poses as a policeman to break into the Trotters’ sanctuary—ends up being exploited himself by Del to make money, but the point is clear.
In this instance, the killer represents an external force crashing into the Trotters lives, one of abject terror, that they could not possibly have foreseen but who represents a challenge to their own hubris. There is even an attempt to explore the psychology of the murderer, who Grandad attempts to quantify in cinematic tropes he understands when asked what a ‘psycho’ is. “It’s a bloke what dresses up in his mother’s clothes” which of course directly references Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), and gets a big laugh from a savvy studio audience. The killer does turn out to be a victim of his parents, oddly enough, just in a different way. Del manages to exploit him after he admits many of his issues stem from wanting to be a ‘loser’, as a stern and violent father was obsessed with making him a winner. Del, as it turns out, comes from opposite stock – his father, who abandoned he and Rodney as children (though Rodney’s biological father turns out to be a different man – more on that later) is a parasite who didn’t care enough about his children to make them anything after the premature death at a young age of their mother Joan. In fiction, do not most psychotic killers’ rage stem from parental actions or failures? Jason, Michael, Freddy Krueger, the Axe Murderer here – the list goes on.
What is interesting about Only Fools and Horses is just how powerfully the spectre of parenthood plays on the Trotter family across the series. Though she was clearly a troubled woman with mental health and abandonment issues, Del venerates their late mother, a woman he knew, and Rodney never did and spits venom at their father. This also perhaps explains one of Only Fools’ finest long-running, latter-day jokes which taps into audience recognition of The Omen, Richard Donner’s 1976 chiller: Rodney’s growing conviction that Del and his partner Raquel’s unborn child is the Antichrist, accompanied by The Omen’s sonorous, recognisable ‘Ave Satani’ by Jerry Goldsmith, played over Rodney’s growing expression of terror.
It stems from a joke in the seventh series episode ‘Three Men, a Woman and a Baby’, in which Del and the heavily pregnant Raquel are thinking of boy’s names, and Rodney sarcastically quips “Why don’t you just call him Damien?”, only for it to stick, much to his horror. Once Del later confirms they’ve had a boy, the music chimes in as Rodney’s unnatural fears come true. In the next episode, ‘The American Dream’, Rodney hears the music as Damien is being christened in church, sinking into his own terrified reverie. As Damien grows into a toddler and a young boy, Rodney sees instances of naughty or cheeky behaviour which Del laughs off, but Rodney sees as evidence that he’s pure evil. The beginning of ‘Heroes and Villains’, the first episode of Only Fools’ intended final episodes in 1996, even features a protracted, dystopian sci-fi inspired dream sequence of a future in which a devilish older Damien (played by character actor Douglas Hodge), rules the entire world with Rodney and his wife Cassandra reduced to the role of supplicants and servants. The question is why Rodney jumps to this conclusion about Del’s child. What fills him with such existential horror?
For me, the answer returns to the key issue of family trauma which ripples across Only Fools and Horses and is grounded inside the horror inspirations the series draws from in these examples.
Rodney was essentially raised by Del after Joan died when he was very young, but Del never pretends to be, nor often acts like, a father figure. He frequently bemoans Rodney’s lack of gratitude at the sacrifices he made to bring him up and look after him, Del often throwing in his face during times of conflict that if not for Rodney he’d be a high flyer in the City (a fantasy he needs to believe but would never have been true), and Rodney—equally as high-tempered and indeed cunning in his own way as his brother—frequently fires back in a way no father-son relationship would allow. When Rodney discovers in the final episode ‘Sleepless in Peckham’, that his true father wasn’t wastrel Reg Trotter but rather legendary gentleman thief Freddie ‘the Frog’ Robdal, making him only Del’s half-brother biologically, their bond as brothers is nevertheless reaffirmed but Rodney’s constant sense of a life without a true parental figure has haunted him. Del, meanwhile, canonised Joan to such a degree that in ‘Sickness and Wealth’, amidst a seance above favourite haunt The Nags Head, a message from her from beyond in fact orchestrated by Uncle Albert through his paramour, spiritualist medium Elsie Partridge, is what it takes for him to go and see a doctor about crippling stomach pains likely caused through stress at unpaid debts.
Rodney, therefore, in his own way, is a product of parental trauma, and this anxiety extends to his imagination of Del’s child being some kind of turbo-charged, post-Thatcherite representation of his brother’s tactless excess. While the musical and visual iconography of The Omen is utilised repeatedly to successful comic effect, Rodney does not fear Damien will be a literal Antichrist spelling the End of Days, but that he might represent the more repellent and self-destructive aspects of his brother and by extension their father. These are Rodney’s own unresolved issues about being the product of a highly dysfunctional family. Jason, Michael, Freddy – they all went on to become the archetypal bogeyman, a representation of the American fear of children or teenage innocence being violated, and the post-war nuclear family contract being ripped apart. Rodney fears that Damien could, if unchecked, represent the product of ‘80s (and later 2010s) Britain: an unregulated, immoral sense of personal prosperity at the expense of those around him; what Del could have been had he not a conscience, a sense of underlying morality behind his cowardice and hucksterism, and a family to care for and ground him. Rodney’s fear is that the victim could become the monster.
Only Fools and Horses boasts a coda that many considered unwise, returning for three feature-length specials over successive Christmas holidays between 2001-2003, in which John Sullivan removed the multi-millionaire lifestyle of the Trotters and grounded them back, largely penniless, in their flat within Nelson Mandela House. At the time, it felt unfair. We had wanted Del & Rodney to succeed, to find personal happiness, but in retrospect, Sullivan perhaps understood that financial gain was never the point of the series. Del always believed being rich was the aim of the game when, in fact, Raquel & Damien made him the happiest he had ever been. The final episode of the series might not have directly been written as a finale, the door open for a return that following Sullivan’s death in 2011 is unlikely ever to happen, but it works in some sense better than ‘Time on Our Hands’ precisely because it allows Rodney the closure on the family issues that have haunted him, and to a degree, Del, since his childhood. He wonders whether he is anything like his true father, Freddie the Frog, but Del counters that he was “a womaniser, a home-breaker, a con-man, a thief, a liar, and a cheat… So, no Rodney, you’re nothing like him.”
As Rodney becomes a father himself (naming his new daughter Joan after his long lost mother), and after losing a child previously thanks to Cassandra suffering a miscarriage, he is able to let go of the past in understanding his true parentage, and why he was so different in aspiration and personality so often to Del, allowing him and his family to move forward.
The Trotter family might be poor again, but they are victims no longer. Luvvly-jubbly.